Since I was young, I was always an avid reader. It took me a while to read “classics,” but I eventually got there. Two of the books that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t read until the last month, which were always on my reading list, are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. They are both novels that touch upon the 20th century oppression of black people, and what is the worst part about reading both of these books in the year 2019 is that… not much has changed in the way that black people are oppressed today. It is simply masked in another way, whether it is the inordinate incarceration of black Americans, or the unarmed killing of black people by the police, the supposed protectors of our society.
Both of these books are oftentimes on reading lists for children in high schools across America. While reading up about both books after finishing each, I was disgusted to learn that both are still on a number of “banned books” list from American schools even today. To Kill a Mocking Bird is banned due to its “use of foul language,” because the N-word is used extremely often. Then, with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this book has many warnings due to its very graphic depiction of Angelou’s own rape experience.
I have a lot of grievances with this entire attitude. The reason the N-word is used a lot in the first book is due to the fact that during that time, that was a word that was oftentimes used by white people to condescend and condemn black people. It is fitting for the time and era during which it was written. Therefore, it is only fitting to be true to that time and use that type of language. It is not a flagrant way of being disrespectful today, but rather a method to capture the time and hostility felt then. Context is everything. With the second book, the rape scene is depicted to show the level of personal atrocity that Angelou faced while a young child. How can you possibly expect young people to grow, mature, and learn from the past if we are constantly shielding them from all the brutality and the harsh history of our world? You cannot sugar coat slavery or segregation. You cannot make rape seem like it’s some quick event that just happens, passes, and is done. That is not reality. There is a lack of desire and even a resistance to be rooted in reality and face the painful facts and history of this country, and it has persisted for far too long.